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Cooney looking forward to either Tests or Thailand after delivering on personal promise

The scrum-half has put in an exceptional first season with Ulster, but Ireland’s remain well-stocked for nines.

Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

IT WASN’T JUST fitting that it was John Cooney who came up with game-changing moments to tilt Sunday’s Champions Cup play-off Ulster’s way.

Inevitable is more like it.

All season long, Ruan Pienaar’s replacement has proven adept at filling the great Springbok’s shoes, and fashioning his own groove for good measure. He has been at the heart of the vast majority of good moments with the northern province, a touch of genius to raise them out of the mire.

Morale can easily drag a group down, but Cooney has served too long as an apprentice to let his chance as a first-choice nine slip through his fingers. The hat-trick of Player of the Season awards on his mantelpiece are proof of a promise he made in Galway last year, now fulfilled.

“I’ve reflected on (the awards) a few times and you have certain coaches doubting you over the times and I think that really drove me,” said Cooney as Ulster celebrated a positive end to the season.

“Some people have seen me at my lowest and it is nice to get those awards at the end of the season.

In my speech I (mentioned) that last season at the Connacht awards I was sick of being a spectator and just sick of just appreciating other people’s efforts. So I said: ‘this season was going to be different’.

“You can say ‘whatever’, but it did mean a lot to me, and it was one of my goals at the start of the season and it’s nice to have a goal and tick it off.”

Against Ospreys, Cooney’s 15 points (from six successful kicks out of seven) were the most tangible element of his influence on this team, but his continued control behind the ruck helped guide his new province through the difficult early stages.

Osprey's team run at Ulster’s John Cooney as he kicks a conversion Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

And when it came time to turn the screw it was his intercept, on the back of ferocious line-speed, that created Craig Gilroy’s second try.

“I think that kind of epitomises our season,” Cooney says of the tumultuous build-up with Charles Piutau and Ross Kane dropping out of the warm-up, and then followed to the infirmary by Callum Black and Louis Ludik.

The scrum-half is too modest to note that his excellent man-of-the-match display amid a fractured contest also epitomised much of the campaign.

After playing back-up in Leinster and then Connacht, Cooney has thrived with the greater workload hoisted onto his shoulders. Rather than wilt with pressure, he grows to meet occasions. So the high stakes match in Kingspan Stadium on Sunday brought the best out of him.

John Cooney Cooney played the final minutes of the final Test of last .summer's tour Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Yet you still sense an injury or an elective rest period is required for either Conor Murray, Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion if Cooney is to go to Australia this summer and add to his single Test cap.

“I’m hopeful,” says Cooney, with a philosophical cushion already placed in case those hopes are unfounded.

But I’ve been up and down and in a lot worse situations. I’m either off to Thailand next week or I’ll be on that tour. Whatever happens, happens and reflecting and getting annoyed is not really going to do anything.”

The ups and downs Cooney touches on are his elongated stint as an understudy and also the worst-possible-timed dislocated shoulder he sustained two minutes after taking the field in Connacht’s Pro12 final victory over Leinster. Coming back from moments such as that are what fill him with pride.

“I’m very happy with how the season has gone but I’ve said it before, to be honest, I’ll be happier about the times when it wasn’t going well but I stuck with it and made a tough decision throughout my last three seasons…

“I’m proudest at not giving up when times are tough so I’m happy with how the season has gone but next season is another game.

“Sport is fickle. And in the words of Kobe Bryant ‘there’s always another level’ so I better come back next season.”

John Cooney 21/1/2018 Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Dan McFarland will hope to be the hand on the tiller if and when Ulster do reach that next level. Cooney, of course, worked alongside the current Scotland forwards coach in the title-winning Connacht team, and he’s braced for tough love and high standards when McFarland dons the Ulster tracksuit.

“He must have presented well because it was Joe that selected him, he did some seriously good work at Connacht and I’d say he was really disappointed to leave after we won,

“He’s a quality coach and if you do something wrong he’ll go through you.

“And that is what Ulster needs.”

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Sean Farrell

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